Increasingly throughout the past decade, the top watch brands have been looking to the women’s market to expand their sales opportunities. While the attention has been very welcome and has resulted in some magnificent models and designs, it is noticeable that many companies have focused on what they see as “feminine complications” such as the pretty, but not so useful, moon phases. Others, such as Hermès and the amazing Christophe Claret, have invented complications that are both brilliantly pointless and wonderfully covetable. But among the maisons that refuse to differentiate between complications for women and men, Patek Philippe reigns supreme, offering chronographs, world timers, perpetual calendars and minute repeaters, all within its standard collection.
“Today we show and talk about women’s complicated watches more than before, but they have always been there,” says Head of Creation Sandrine Stern. “What is important to us, and to our female clients, is that they have their own watch, so we do not just take the same movement and case and add precious stones, we insist on a collection that is specifically for ladies. Interestingly, the optimum case size has remained static for women at about 36 or 37mm. Wearability is important so there are a lot of details that we have to adapt — even more so when we are talking about a complication.
“When a woman buys a Patek Philippe minute repeater, she is not looking to add a chronograph function to it, the most important thing is that the sound is pure. It is not about being trendy — when you wear a Patek, this is the furthest thing from your mind and our feedback shows that women love wearing their timepieces, even if they are 20 or 30 years old.”
Famed for listening to and approving every minute repeater that leaves the manufacture, Patek Philippe President Thierry Stern believes that the watchmakers’ skill is at such a level he can ask for a woman’s minute repeater to be made “more feminine”. Describing the sound, however, is something he finds more difficult, insisting that it is instinctual. “We have the skills to fine tune,” he says. “The watchmaker who regulates the gong has to deal with tiny differences, all of which impact on the sound. For a woman’s piece, I ask for it to be more feminine. It is not easy. For a man, it will be a deep dong, for a woman a high ding. It’s tiny adjustments, but at this level, that is what we are aiming for.
“You can have 10 watches of the same reference made in the same material and you will have 10 different sounds. My job is to see that they are in between our parameters of acceptance. If they are outside the criteria, we will talk to the watchmaker and he will have to find a solution. Just to regulate the sound, you are talking about over 150 hours, so I cannot just say to a watchmaker: ‘No, it’s no good.’ He would be totally lost. I have to understand and I have to explain.”
An obvious question is whether the range and depth of women’s complicated watches offered by Patek are a result of having a woman as Head of Creation, but this is seen as irrelevant by Thierry and Sandrine who both see movement innovation as the key to their success in the female market. “It’s not only a question of design,” explains Sandrine. “Thierry insists on not using calibres from men’s timepieces for ladies watches and that is why we have such a phenomenal collection.”
“I am travelling all the time and I get a lot of feedback, which is how I adapt to the needs of our clients – male and female,” Thierry continues. “Sandrine as Head of Creation is not what makes our ladies line good. As a woman, she does have more focus on certain details and this can help in men’s and women’s watches. I didn’t appoint her because I thought she understood women’s watches. Also, running Creation doesn’t mean that Sandrine is a creative, she does have great ideas, but she is not really a creative person per se. Her main objective is to handle a division of about 30 creative people, which is not an easy job. She has a responsibility for the ladies’ line because she knows about Patek, she knows how it works and she also has good taste. Is it an advantage to be a woman? Maybe a little, but look at fashion – a lot of the top designers are men.”
Having grown up in the watch industry, learning the business from the ground up before building his own vision, Thierry believes that everything starts with a movement. “If you have a big chunky calibre, you can’t expect a beautiful feminine watch – it doesn’t work,” he says. “So, if you want to be a leader in women’s watches, you have to be able to fabricate a thin movement which is small in diameter and has complications. The external design comes way after the movement. We have beautiful cases because we have beautiful calibres.”
The Women’s Movement
“There is nothing wrong with quartz,” adds Sandrine, “but it is important to have the whole collection. Today you have both the woman who likes a quartz movement and the woman who likes a mechanical watch — with or without a complication — and, most of the time, those women are buying the watches themselves. When we launched the Twenty-4, it was often bought by men for women, but today women buy complications for themselves because they are able to and because they know about the product. They are successful and don’t need a man to buy for them.”
And although the demand for women’s complications is growing, Thierry insists that Patek Philippe does not follow a marketing brief, preferring to use his 20 years of experience, of listening, interpreting and adapting the collection. “There is no secret,” he says. “If you are passionate, it works. People can feel it. If I was only trying to make money I would not do this; I would make two women’s complications, market them to death and sell 50,000 pieces. Of course, we would be successful, but that is not what Patek Philippe is about. Where would be the pleasure?”
With a sense of fun, Thierry always likes to shock, to give people something they are not expecting, and nowhere was this more evident than in the 2009 launch in Paris of the Ladies First Chronograph, housing the brand-new CH 29-535 movement. “I could feel the market asking for ladies’ complications,” Thierry says, explaining this bold move. “We know the chronograph is always popular — although we don’t really know why as we never use them practically, but the movements are so beautiful. Everyone assumed we would launch the CH 29-535 in a man’s watch and I don’t like when people try to second guess me. When you think I will go left, I will go right because that’s how I am. I like to surprise.”
Did he feel that he was taking a big risk that could alienate Patek clients? “I was not afraid. I knew men may be jealous and may refuse to buy the movement afterwards. But we gave enough information for people to understand that the movement is neutral and that is what happened. It worked and it was fun because no one expected it. It was revenge for every woman.”
When it comes to what female clients want from Patek, Thierry says the answer is pretty much universal: they want to be surprised. But they also want something for a reason. “The chronograph is still one of the most popular complications. But demand for world timers and annual calendars is also growing for practical reasons.
“Our complications are always intuitive and easy-to-use,” says Sandrine. “This is paramount because the most important thing is to wear your watch and not be scared of it. People are worried about setting perpetual calendars because they think they are going to break them. There are simple rules to follow, however, you should not be afraid. On the plus side, the fact that breaking such a mechanism is a worry shows great respect.” Thierry continues: “That’s why we are successful at auction. Customers know they can send us their watches and they will be restored perfectly. And I think this is more important for women than men.”
And, while some see women’s interest in mechanical watches as a fad, the Sterns believe that this is a trend set to continue and one that Patek Philippe is ideally placed to lead. “Although we approach a new watch in the same way whether it is for a man or a woman, I do think that creating for a woman is in some ways more difficult, because women tend to look more closely at the detail,” says Sandrine. “But our criteria is high and goes across the board, so it is just a case of being creative – and that, after all, is our job.”